The Breadwinner: Against All Odds and Doom and Gloom

St. Yohanes Berkhmans Todabelu Mataloko
English Corner – Book Corner

“Those flowers won’t grow in that soil,” someone said.

 “There are no nutrients in it.”

“Even if they grow, they will be trampled.”

“The marketplace is no spot for flowers.”

Why are you planting them there?”

Through the voices of derision came another voice. “Do none of you appreciate nature? This boy has undertaken to bring a bit of beauty into our gray marketplace, and do you thank him? Do you help him?”

An old man pushed his way to the front of the little gathering. With difficulty, he knelt down to help Parvana plant the flowers. “Afghans love beautiful things,” he said, “but we have seen so much ugliness, we sometimes forget how wonderful a thing like a flower is.”

He asked one of the tea boys hovering nearby for some water from the tea shop. It was fetched, and he poured it around the flowers, soaking the earth around them. The plants had wilted. They didn’t

stand up properly.

 “Are they dead?” Parvana asked.

“No, no, not dead. They may look scraggly and dying now,” he said, “but the roots are good. When the time is right, these roots will support plants that are healthy and strong.”


This dialogue, which appears almost at the end of the book, is one of the keys to understanding the story and going deeper into reality.

The title of the book is The Breadwinner, written by Deborah Ellis.

The dialogue took place when Parvana, the main character, and the breadwinner of the family, had decided to go to Mazar, a city next to Kabul, to find her mom, sisters, and her brother.

The latest news made them scared. Mazar had collapsed under the power of the Taliban. The Taliban soldiers cruelly killed so many people. Dead bodies were neglected and scattered here and there and dogs ate them.

Together with her father, who had just been released from prison, Parvana decided to leave Kabul, for Mazar.

Just before leaving, Parvana decided to go back to the place in the market, where he used to sit, waiting for the customers asking him to read or write.

An unknown girl from the window up high at the side of the marketplace secretly threw tokens of friendship to Parvana.

By planting the flower in that dry land, she wanted to tell the girl that she would not meet her. And if she saw the flower growing there, she would remember Parvana.


Parvana was actually a girl 11 years old, dressing up as a boy to make money for the sake of her family.

Taliban, who took over power in Afghanistan, imposed cruel and weird rules that women should not go out of their houses without wearing burqa, and under the escort of a man or a boy.

Women in burqa

Parvana usually accompanied her father to earn money in the market. But one day her father was arrested for no reason, and put in jail.

In Parvana’s family, nobody could earn money outside of the house. It was then decided that Parvana should let her hair cut short and wear a boy’s outfit to help the family.

“You are my Malali” was the last sentence of Parvana’s father.

Before he was arrested, he told a story of an Afghan heroine named Malali who led a battle against the British when all Afghan men lost their fighting spirit, and she won!

Parvana worked like what her father used to do. She went to the market, put the blanket on the ground, and sat on it waiting for the people to ask her to read the letter or write because many were illiterate. They would pay her. That way she made money to help her family survive.

She met her friend Shauzia, a schoolmate, who did the same: dressing up as a boy, only to make money for her family.

Earning money in Kabul was so difficult that one day, they changed their work.

Together with many boys, they went to a cemetery to dig up human bones. They sold the bones to a bone broker. They got a lot of money, but Parvana was extremely painful.

One day, they saw a crowd going to a sports stadium. They went there hoping that many would buy stuff from them.

The Taliban

In the stadium, Parvana could not believe her eyes. They saw not a soccer game, but prisoners whose hands were cut off cruelly by the Taliban because they were accused as thieves.

Rain season came. Parvana unceasingly tried to work as hard as possible to earn money for her family.

One afternoon, it was raining heavily. Parvana took shelter in a building which was partly demolished by the bomb. It was almost night. She went deeper inside the building to find a dry spot, only to meet a woman named Homa who fled from Mazar.

She waited until it was really dark, then she helped Homa go home. She saved the woman.

It was really heartbreaking. In the middle of the ugliness of Kabul, where life was extremely tough and full of hardships there was a piece of beauty, the beauty of a human heart expressed through Parvana. A beauty of caring.

The book ended with a scene of Parvana saying goodbye to her friend Shauzia. She got on a truck and went together with her father to Mazar.


I took a deep breath after reading this book. I simply sat on my chair silently with images of Parvana, her family, her friend, all the odds of Kabul and Taliban, and the flower rushing wildly in my head.

I cannot believe that on our planet there is a place with such insane ugliness, cruelty, and chaos, and yet, people can still survive. It is just like people of Kabul who found it hard to  believe that a flower could  grow in such a barren and dry land of the marketplace, and yet it bloomed. 

The Breadwinner is actually a story about heroes like Parvana who, against all odds and doom and gloom, “in big ways and small, put human decency above all else,” to borrow a statement from Deborah Ellis, the writer.

The Breadwinner is a story of heroes with great courage. It is a story of human dignity with the quality of courage, love, caring, and compassion that finally wins against all insanity.

And the one who is the hero and has big courage – a giant – is Parvana, a young girl, 11 years old, “Malali”. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful!

I remember a statement by Cheryl Hale that says, “Brave women are not born from comfort zones. They are made in the fire”.

In the fire of Afghanistan, there are Mrs. Weera, Shauzia, Parvana’s mother, and of course, Parvana (Nani Songkares).